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Story Publication logo May 6, 2018

Shadow of Nationalism Raises Worries of War in Bosnia

Religion and nationalism are key factors in preventing peace in the Balkans. Image by the PBS NewsHour. Serbia, 2018.

Russian meddling, nationalist rhetoric, and lingering hatred block Balkan conflict zones' progress.

Leaders of the Night Wolves, a Russian biker gang, have been barred from Bosnia as a security risk. Image by the PBS NewsHour. Bosnia, 2018.
Leaders of the Night Wolves, a Russian biker gang, have been barred from Bosnia as a security risk. Image by the PBS NewsHour. Bosnia, 2018.

Read the Full Transcript

John Yang:

Tonight, we bring you the first of two reports on the messy state of affairs in the Balkans. In the 1990s, the former Yugoslavia was ripped apart by bloody wars.

First up, how rising nationalism and Russian influence are exposing old fault lines in Bosnia-Herzegovina, which was wracked by a three-way ethnic conflict. Now some fear it’s on the brink of conflict again.

Special correspondent Malcolm Brabant covered the Bosnia War a quarter century ago.

With the support of the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, he returned to examine the rising tensions.

Malcolm Brabant:

In the past, the Bosnian Serb capital, Banja Luka, might have expected a visit from the Bolshoi Ballet or Moscow’s state circus.

These days, Russia sends the Night Wolves, without their motorcycles when it’s snowing.

Reuf Bajrovic:

They are bad news. I mean, them appearing somewhere means that there’s something in the making. They spread a hateful ideology. It is an anti-civilization, nihilistic, gangster view of the world.

Malcolm Brabant:

Reuf Bajrovic has just published a report for the Foreign Policy Research Institute on Russian meddling in the Balkans.

Reuf Bajrovic:

In reality, they are an extremist paramilitary group. They are a mechanism of the Russian state. People who followed the seizure of Crimea, the aggression against Ukraine know very well that this group is a signal by the Russian state of its intent.

Malcolm Brabant:

The Night Wolves claimed they were on a pilgrimage to reinforce Russia’s centuries-old historical, cultural, and Christian orthodox spiritual ties with the Serb part of Bosnia. “God bless you, heroes,” said the Serb Orthodox priest Dragan Vidovic, who seemed unconcerned that two of the Night Wolves’ leaders had been barred from entering Bosnia for security reasons.

Dragan Vidovic (through translator):

Look, you know what? If bikers are bad guys, it only comes from American films. Actually, I don’t judge people for what they are doing.

We judge them if we hear about good or bad deeds. I don’t know these guys personally, but I know of the things they have done, and, in the past, they brought humanitarian aid to Kosovo and Republika Srpska.

Malcolm Brabant:

The Russian bikers said that they didn’t want to talk to us. There are some Balkan experts who believe that this visit was nothing more than a publicity stunt. If you believe the Serbs, it wasn’t evidence of Russian meddling in the Balkans.

But, according to critics, what this visit has done is to stoke up nationalism, and in this current nervous climate, that is unhelpful, to say the least.

Goran Kovacevic:

Now, everything is rhetorics, you know, hate speech. But hate speech is just a step before war.

Malcolm Brabant:

In the war-scarred campus of Sarajevo University, security studies lecturer Goran Kovacevic Bosnia’s ethnic complexities. He has an Orthodox Serb father, a Catholic Croat mother, and is married to a Muslim. He’s also a former intelligence agent for the Sarajevo government.

Goran Kovacevic:

If we continue building up these national tensions, we could end up in a dreadful war again. That’s my opinion.

Malcolm Brabant:

You are listening to a radio recording I made in Sarajevo in 1992, as a cellist mourned friends killed when a Serb mortar struck a line of people queuing for bread; 10,000 Sarajevans were killed by snipers and shells during the three-year-long siege by Serb forces.

The Serbs hated the concept of a multiethnic Bosnia, and conducted a campaign of murder and expulsion of Muslims and Croats. This so-called ethnic cleansing culminated in 1995 with the massacre of 9,000 Muslim men and boys at Srebrenica.

The war crime triggered an American-led bombing campaign against the Serbs, and a U.S.-brokered peace deal called the Dayton Accord. Dayton froze the conflict lines and effectively created two mini-states. One is called the Republika Srpska, the other is a federation between the Catholic Croats and the Muslims, who now call themselves Bosniaks.

This is the man widely perceived as Bosnia’s most provocative politician, Milorad Dodik, the leader of the Bosnian Serbs. As this recent television interview shows, Dodik raises the specter of Republika Srpska breaking away from Bosnia once and for all.

Dodik’s critics fear secession could lead to war, but he argues it could be done peacefully, after a referendum.

Milorad Dodik (through translator):

If there is no agreement on the state level of Bosnia, our main intention is more independence and autonomy for us. I don’t know if those in Bosnia and Herzegovina will be smart enough to accept this principle or not, to accept our autonomy in a way that is acceptable for us. That is their problem.

But if they think they can force us to believe in Bosnia and Herzegovina, that cannot happen.

Malcolm Brabant:

Under the Dayton peace treaty, all three ethnicities have to agree on any government issue. Each group has its own president.

Given the nationalist tensions, consensus is difficult to achieve, leading to deadlock and stagnation. The Muslim, or Bosniak leader, Bakir Izetbegovic, is disturbed that his Serb counterpart is blocking Bosnia’s membership of NATO, at the behest of Moscow.

Bakir Izetbegovic:

Russia is looking for players, the ones who will be on their side, especially in this Slav Orthodox world and populations. And you have them on Balkans. And Dodik is ready to play that game.

Malcolm Brabant:

In another wing of the Bosnian presidential building, the Croat leader, Dragan Covic, is less concerned about the Bosnian Serbs’ rhetoric about breaking away and joining Serbia proper. He believes such an act would hurt Serbia’s chances of joining the European Union.

Dragan Covic (through translator):

In the long run, Bosnia and Herzegovina has a path towards Europe, along with Serbia, and the very fact that I am mentioning Serbia suggests clearly that it won’t encourage aspirations of territorial divisions.

Throughout the centuries, Bosnia has been multiethnic, multinational and multicultural. You see it in every part of the country, and it can only survive in this way.

Malcolm Brabant:

Bosnia’s political instability and accompanying economic stagnation have led to young people of all ethnicities leaving the country in droves.

Serb Zhelko Pantelic is thinking of joining them. He left school three years ago, and now, aged 21, has been unemployed for all that time.

Zhelko Pantelic:

If you finish college or his school, you don’t have an opportunity to do any job here. We have like two sides, and everything they do, they argue. They don’t do anything for young people, for economy, for — I don’t know, for anything, yes.

Politicians upset not just me, but all young people, because we want to work, but we don’t have the opportunity for work.

Lejla Karovic:

It doesn’t feel like peace. There’s so, so many problems. This country is so ripped, so negative.

Malcolm Brabant:

Two hundred miles away in Sarajevo, 38-year-old Lejla Karovic also has problems finding work.

Lejla Karovic:

Nationalism is getting in the way of prosperity in this country.

Malcolm Brabant:

After her last job application, she learned she failed because she was the wrong ethnicity, a Muslim.

Lejla Karovic:

We don’t belong to any political party. We don’t want to belong to any political party we don’t believe in. It’s totally destroying our belief. Only nationalists are happy in this country. They’re good. They’re fine. They have big salaries.

Malcolm Brabant:

Haris Silajdzic was Bosnia’s wartime prime minister, and is a critic of the U.S.-brokered peace accord. He believes it rewarded Serb aggression by freezing the lines of conflict.

He says America and its allies must help forge a new deal that will end the divisions in the country.

Haris Silajdzic:

What is happening now runs counter to what we know as democracy, because this is a democratic feudalism that we have now. What we would like to see is something different, a normal citizens democracy.

Malcolm Brabant:

Prior to the Bosnia war in 1992, the Serbs began stockpiling weapons in the hills above Sarajevo. Recently, the Serb police took delivery of several thousand assault rifles, which they insist are essential for anti-terrorism protection.

But former intelligence agent Goran Kovacevic is concerned that history is repeating itself.

Goran Kovacevic:

It’s not far when we will have a military police instead of a civil police. So, that’s the prefix to war.

And everybody are saying, we are ready to use this military potential of the police to defend ourselves. Against who? Nobody knows. But they are trying to say that — the Serbians are saying that Bosniaks will probably attack them. Bosniaks say probably Serbians will make the first move.

Malcolm Brabant:

In Sarajevo, there is a constant reminder that a small spark can start a global conflagration.

This is the spot where, in 1914, a young Serb, Gavrilo Princip, shot dead Austria’s Archduke Ferdinand, unleashing a sequence of events that led to the First World War.

In this, the centenary of the end of that war, Bosnia’s Muslim leader says the world must heed the lessons of history.

Bakir Izetbegovic:

Bosnia-Herzegovina is a meeting point of emotions of nations, emotions that lead to Moscow, that lead to the Islamic world, that lead to Europe. So we shouldn’t again create a whirlpool that started from Sarajevo 100 years ago. So, we should take care. We should stop in time.

Malcolm Brabant:

This depiction of a mother and child is part of an evocative memorial to the 1,500 children who were killed during the siege of Sarajevo.

Many Bosnians believe there is no appetite for another war. But, as Sarajevo knows all too well, the unexpected can happen.

For the “PBS NewsHour,” I’m Malcolm Brabant in Bosnia.

John Yang:

On Monday, Malcolm reports from Kosovo, another Balkan nation still reeling from conflict.


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